Are you feeling like a toddler of late? It’s no surprise because, in disciplinary terms, COVID has basically scolded then sent you to bed without any supper—and without the opportunity to plead, “no mom, it wasn’t my fault.”
Furthermore, the humorless virus disinvited us to Super Bowl parties, canceled wedding receptions, and made no-shows of dear friends to our birthday celebrations. (Let’s also recognize that we weren’t able to be with COVID victims in hospitals or attend funerals.)
So forgive yourself for being a bit anxious about hosting an upcoming party. You’re out of practice, and probably short of ideas. All of which makes Kelli Lewton’s Make Your Own Party the perfect how-to-party manual for the coming post-COVID new world.
Describe the perfect party. What are some healthy (reasonable) expectations for hosting a successful party? Where do you see things commonly go off the rails?
The perfect party!? This can manifest in so many ways for different people! For some, the perfect party is the best craft cocktail and for others it is food centric; my aunt Jannie would say it is all about the right table setting and décor. The perfect party needs to center around what is most important to the host in combination with what will be received with favor by your guests. For me, it is a fluid combination of drinks, décor, and tablescaping with the highlight being the food!
Events are often derailed by not having a solid plan or making things that are out of your comfort zone without a trial run. A successful party is born from a plan that lets you prep in order to execute without stress, so that you can enjoy your event along with your guests. Every chapter of Make Your Own Party includes tips to help navigate these steps.
What is the biggest reason hosts stress about the idea of throwing a party and what is your advice for helping them get over the anxiety?
I believe people have many reasons for not wanting to entertain, from the size of their living space to one’s cooking skills, their confidence as a host as well as financial constraints. For the anxious-host-to-be, I suggest starting small with a gathering of 6-8 people. The Game Night chapter of MYO Party is a perfect place to start because most of the food can be made well before guests arrive. Plus, you can always choose the recipes you like, omit the ones you don’t, and fill in the blanks per your preference! Throwing a small party successfully will help you to increase your confidence and gain some experience with flow and timing, and your entertaining muscles will continue to build from there.
In twenty chapters, you lay out a script for all manner of themed parties, from a Love Picnic for Valentines to your Easy Breezy Summer Shindig. Let’s put you on the spot and ask you your favorite holiday or favorite time to throw a festive party?
That does put me on the spot; it is like asking me which is my favorite kid, lol! I would say I really like to throw a festive outdoor party; so, an event in any landscape I find extra exciting! This is why I had so much fun preparing for and shooting the Urban Picnic chapter for the book. We rented the use of a greenspace in Detroit, nor far from Eastern Market, with a beautifully muraled tiny brick building as the backdrop. It felt so summery and cozy.
I realize it may be tough to generalize, but what tricks do you have for making parties more gender neutral, inclusive, diverse, and basically more welcoming to all attendees no matter their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnic background, even age?
Hmmm, that is an interesting question. I personally think the sign of a wonderful event is when people from all different walks of life can enjoy the same event, as the purpose of an event is to celebrate the reason the host has invited you. To me, events seem inherently inclusive, especially when the locus inspires communal celebration and food. It is not about the guest’s family traditions or personal preferences, but rather an opportunity to enjoy someone else’s vision and happiness. I think the mainstay of a good event is that we are all of one group, the loved, invited guests: friends, family, and new faces alike.
I don’t know that a theme of the event would be overly influenced by gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnic background, or age, in general. For example, My Star-Spangled Banner chapter celebrating the 4th of July will likely almost always feel, well, very star-spangled banner, red, white, and blue, and patriotic. The Backyard Street Food chapter feels casual, like street food, encompassing rustic elements. Many events have nothing to do with age, race, or gender in particular. A graduation party might be for a teenager, and it will be built around the graduate and their interests, be it a sports theme, unicorns, or something else entirely. Baby showers are about celebrating the incredible transformation of becoming a parent and welcoming a child into their family, and they have evolved in the last decade: people seem to be including more modern elements in design and décor above and beyond the old blue or pink representations of the baby.
Nothing kills a party like the word COVID. Do you have some COVID workarounds that will help readers host parties that offer some extra protection?
Yep, COVID is a party killer!!!!
In the end, the invited guests who are concerned or afraid will decline the invitation. If you and/or those in your circle are particularly concerned about COVID, an outdoor event is the best bet. Keeping a gathering small with a station-style layout rather than a sit-down served or buffet dinner is another consideration.
This past summer, ninety percent of our events were outdoors, which helped many guests feel safer. We had a few clients who wanted our staff to wear a mask, and yet their 150+ guests were not; it can get a little weird, to say the least. It can be difficult for staff to perform athletic work easily in the heat outdoors or a warm interior environment wearing a mask. Just something to keep in mind if you’re planning a large, catered, outdoor event.
Okay, so my mother is turning sixty-five in a couple weeks, and I want to throw a summer bash for family and friends, say fifty people total, in our backyard. She’s a Tex Mex/Mexican food fan so that’s the theme. Can you please walk me through some design and menu ideas to pull this thing off?
Direct your attention to the South & West chapter, where we talk in detail about things that feel YEE HAW cowboy with rustic ranch elements or perhaps rolling into Santa Fe or Tex Mex with muted turquoise, coral, and bright pottery pieces. You would also find in the Anatomy of an Event chapter suggestions for outdoor furniture, managing the flow of the party, equipment ideas, and more. I would be happy to provide more insights, but it would require more of an interview process with you.
If there’s a city that deserves a good party or two after many tough years, Detroit certainly comes to mind. Tell us about your connection to the Motor City?
Ahh, Detroit. I love Detroit. As a child, I spent many weekends at my Grandma’s house near Southfield Freeway and Finkle Ave. Early in my career, I worked at one of Detroit’s “fanciest” restaurants, Opus One, and I was always bopping around the city, enjoying Eastern Market and many vibrant, small family-owned establishments. When I started my catering company some thirty years ago, we were one of the very few catering companies that worked in the city. I chuckle now with my staff that I watched as well as participated in the rising of Detroit, that now has a hipster vibe. Many of us have been celebrating the city’s rebirth for a long time.
You taught for many years at the prestigious Schoolcraft Culinary Arts College, chefed, and catered professionally to high acclaim. The recipes in the book make it obvious you care deeply about locally sourced, fresh, authentic ingredients with vibrant flavors. Please tell us about your food philosophy. Recipe wise, what do you strive for in party food?
I can tell you the color of the eyes of the fine gentleman I purchase garlic from! It makes my heart sing to be connected to growers, local meat purveyors, honey from the bee farm ten minutes down the road! When you spend money with your neighbors it stays in the community and supports local prosperity, and that is good for everyone. Something that was picked yesterday at the farm stand will undoubtedly taste better than something from an eight-day road trip from another state or country. Some weeks we may buy 300+ pounds of lettuce, so not everything is homegrown from around the corner, but whenever there is a local option, we take it. Vibrant food lends to tasty dishes, for sure!
I am often asked “what is your specialty” and “what is your favorite dish.” My answer is always “the one I am making right now,” but I do thoroughly enjoy creating American regional cuisine as it has lineage to so many places.
What’s next for you in your writing career?
Full disclosure: I am dreaming up a series of MYO branded books. I think there is so much more geography to cover in our MYO party journey, such as exploring American regional cuisine and developing themes such as brunch into larger expanded styling, themes, and recipes.